By Tara Papworth
The ice climber
At age 12 when other kids were riding their bikes, David Chen’s fun was climbing frozen waterfalls. He’s been chasing the ice ever since.
“I enjoy the sense of freedom,” he says. “When I’m on the wall in a flow state I don’t have room in my head to think of anything else. It’s such a mind-blowing experience. Not to mention the scenery and ice formations [which] are beautiful.”
Ice climbing is the ascent of a vertical or near-vertical sheet of ice, and requires specialist skills and equipment.
“Ice climbing and mountaineering are two distinct sports, although most people who climb ice in New Zealand tend also to be mountaineers,” says Chen. “But climbing ice is not at all like climbing rock. The gear, such as ice axes, boots and technical crampons, is very different because it has a totally different role to play.”
The ice climbing season is short here because of the temperate climate. “There’s only a very small window of two to three weeks around July,” says Chen. “There’s not much ice around to practise on. But because it doesn’t happen for long each year, it’s very special.”
Chen’s waterfalls of choice include Wye Creek in The Remarkables at Queenstown and Ailsa Stream near Lake Tekapo.
“Ailsa Stream is a bit of a walk, but it’s good. It’s not populated, kind of like backcountry ice climbing. Ruapehu in the North Island is also great.”
Chen doesn’t climb alone. “It’s pretty terrifying to solo climb on ice. There’s a high risk of ice delaminating and falling down because of how it forms on top of rock in winter.”
He recommends learning about the sport if you want to become an ice climber. “It’s a great way to spend time: enjoying nature with good people. You don’t have to be a mountaineer to get into ice climbing, but you do need to learn about it, so go on a course.”
The ice swimmer
“I started open-water swimming a couple of years ago because I got sick of hitting the pool all the time,” says Michelle Carroll. She’s talking of her decision to join the Canterbury Open Water Swimming Association (COWSA).
“I really enjoyed it, so I just kept swimming as the year passed by and the water got colder. Then I found myself waist deep at 3°C in Lake Lyndon about to swim an ice mile and thought, why am I doing this? How did I get here?”
Ice swimming is swimming in water with a temperature of 5°C or less, unassisted, with a silicon cap, a pair of goggles and a standard bathing suit, according to the International Ice Swimming Association.
It requires a support team. “It’s not just a dip. We’re in the water for 30 or 40 minutes. You can’t move when you get out,” says Carroll. “People have to strip you down, dress you, cover you with blankets, give you hot water bottles and hot drinks and sit with you until you come right. It’s quite intense, and it’s amazing how long it takes to thaw out.”
Carroll says it’s not fun, and hypothermia is a real risk.
“It hurts, and I wouldn’t say I enjoy it. I complain a lot,” she laughs. “But I enjoy being a part of the group and sharing the experience. I appreciate the friends I’ve made and the support I’ve had. My motto is ‘just because I don’t want to, doesn’t mean I can’t’.
“I really enjoy being outside, especially on those winter mornings when it’s cold and still. The water is like glass and I’m cutting through it, looking at the mountains as the sun’s coming up. It’s a real ‘wow’ moment.”
The COWSA ‘Ice Division’ swims regularly in Cass Bay in Lyttelton Harbour, but for cold water they head to the mountains. In 2022 they held a charity ice swimming event at Lake Lyndon. “There were several distances, from 200m to the classic ice mile,” says Carroll. “We want to get more people involved.”
Carroll recommends that anyone contemplating ice swimming should start in the summer. “You have to acclimatise, but you can do it pretty quickly. Ditch the wetsuit, start swimming and just keep going. Don’t miss weeks. Safety’s the most important thing, so always have someone with you and be well prepared with lots of layers and warm clothes.”
Slacklining is the art of walking, running or balancing along a suspended length of flat webbing. Unlike a tightrope or tightwire, a slackline is a dynamic line that stretches and bounces, like a long and narrow trampoline.
Now imagine that trampoline to be just 20mm wide and more than 20m above the ground or water, and you have what many slackliners consider to be the pinnacle of the sport: highlining.
Argentinian climber Fer Kpok came to New Zealand in 2014 with some highlining experience under his belt. “I’d slackline in the park with my friends, and each time we’d go a bit higher. Then highlining became a thing and I’d go to Patagonia or the Andes to climb and see people putting up lines in beautiful mountains.”
Kpok is a founding member of the New Zealand highlining community. “By 2015 there were a few groups around the country,” he says. “We started putting permanent anchors into rocks, and in 2016 we organised a tour of the anchor points around Christchurch for some North Island highliners.”
The ‘South Island Highlining Tour’ has been running every year since. “Now, though, it’s a whole week around several South Island locations,” Kpok says.
The top spot is Harwoods Hole. “We have two lines over the hole,” says Kpok. “One is only 50m long, but a metre out on the line it’s a 250m drop straight into a black hole. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve been highlining. Super creepy but very beautiful.”
In 2022 Queenstown played host to its first highline festival, with several lines over the Kawarau River. “People came from all over,” says Kpok. “It’s great to get people together and develop the community.”
Kpok is based in Christchurch and is well practised on lines in the Port Hills. In July 2020 he held the New Zealand record for the longest highline at 250m. “In the middle of it you feel like you’re in the void, just walking on air.” He says it “wasn’t super high” – only 100m up.
He often ventures further afield. “There are so many beautiful locations in New Zealand, and we’re always on the lookout for more. My ultimate highline would be Lake Quill in Fiordland, because it’s beautiful and I love being in the mountains. Logistically it’s tricky though: we’d need to hire a helicopter.”
Kpok says the future of New Zealand highlining is in Otago. “Christchurch has more lines right now, but Otago is being developed. Queenstown and Wānaka have really accessible mountains and they’re inland where the wind isn’t as strong.”